Telling young men that ISIS is ‘dangerous’ will only encourage them to go
“The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’
When we were both sixteen, my then-best friend Dave carved the above lyric on his school desk. It was from the song ‘Mad World’ by the band Tears for Fears and we both thought it ineffably cool. It’s a line that elegantly evokes the self-pity and nihilism that afflicts so many teenaged boys.
Every decade has songs that hit a nerve because they are similarly doom-laden and grandiose. But the important point is that many adolescent boys fantasize about death, killing and suicide – melodramatic, shocking gestures that might free them from their sense of powerlessness as they flail between childhood and the adult world.
One of the reasons why the authorities have failed to stem the flow of young Britons to ISIS’s ‘caliphate’ may be because they have forgotten the extent to which many teenage boys live in a world of macho fantasy. It is certainly not something overlooked by jihadi recruiters, as even a quick glance at their propaganda will show.
Those in charge of counter-radicalisation may also have underestimated the profound appeal to the adolescent mind of adventure, risk, and sacrifice – all things that play a big role in jihadi recruitment materials, but that can be hard for young men to find in mainstream British life.
Today one of the key elements of the UK’s ‘Prevent’ counter-radicalisation strategy involves police visiting schools in cities such as Bradford and Birmingham. Their central message? Going to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS is very dangerous.
But the danger is one of the most appealing things about it. You’re not drawn to ISIS because you hanker for comfort and safety, any more than you’d join the SAS because you want a cosy 9-5 job. This is true not just for the criminals and gang members converted and recruited so effectively in British prisons, but also for the geeky South Asian boys who are radicalized online.
So it’s hard to imagine a more useless exercise, or one that better demonstrates to those students how laughably out of touch the authorities seem to be. In that way, the ‘Prevent’ strategy is a bit like those naive adult interventions of previous decades, when police or social workers visited schools to warn of the dangers of smoking or alcohol. The more earnest the warnings, the cooler it was to be one of the kids who smoked or drank.
During the last two years ISIS has made jihadism more enticing than ever before. And for certain types of young man, especially but not exclusively in the British Pakistani community, it was already powerfully attractive.
After the 7/7/2005 bombings, our commentariat often agonized about why British born young men would blow up trains and buses in London. It was generally assumed that the roots of home grown terror must lie in phenomena such as lack of opportunity, social exclusion, racism, poverty, ‘Islamophobia’ or the percieved wrongs of British foreign policy. After all, the logic went, to commit such a terrible crime you must surely be angry about some terrible wrong. For middle-aged politicians, home office officials, policemen and social workers – people for whom killing or dying for a cause seemed almost unimaginably extreme – no other explanation made sense.
They did not really register that all the suspects in the British bomb plots were young men in their teens or twenties, that there were no angry elderly or middle-aged men, no angry women, and at least in the UK, no angry girls seeking to set off explosives in buses and tubes.
It did not occur to them, even before the advent of ISIS, that jihadist recruiters were offering their potential cadre something positive and idealistic, an intoxicating cocktail of adventure, discipline, belonging, manliness and glamour.
To boys rebelling against their immigrant parents and caught between cultures, they offered not just community but a particularly intense form of it: membership in a proud international brotherhood of warriors fighting on behalf of a global umma.
To youths humiliated at school by their lack of confidence with girls, they promised a future in which they would (finally) get respect from women; not just respect, but the respect due to heroes.
By joining the movement in Britain they could become jihadi James Bonds and Jason Bournes. They would enter a world of subterfuge and conspiracy, defying the entire security structure of a modern state, and carrying in their hands the technology to terrify a nation. And if they were to fail, then they could embrace a martyrs doom.
This was exciting enough for some. But ISIS offers even more, and it does so using methods cleverly designed to attract a generation shaped by social media, computer gaming and online avatars.
What ISIS proffers is something equally attractive to poor young men in Yemen, humiliated Sunnis in Iraq, and science graduates from Birmingham. It offers participation in Victory. To identify with ISIS is to identify with a winner, an unstoppable world-changing force.
Moreover, their dazzling successes against vastly larger armies and governments recall those of the original empire-shattering Muslim conquest of Arabia, North Africa, Persia and Central Asia. When recruiters tell their targets that Allah is on their side, it’s not hard for them to make a convincing case.
ISIS offers the opportunity to take part in a real war, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of victory in a real caliphate. Just days from London it could be you cradling an assault rifle, racing down dusty streets in your heavily-armed Toyota pickup (no driving license necessary) on your way to buy a pair of Yazidi slave girls or to watch the beheading of a Shia prisoner. It certainly trumps joining a local British street gang and controlling the dreary streets of a depressed midlands post code, or the wing of a prison.
Moreover, you don’t have to be genuinely tough to join. Indeed, in the UK, ISIS actively recruits computer geeks and science nerds. It needs them for its cyber warfare, to make its propaganda videos, and to run its thousands of blogs and social media feeds.
And, unlike any other potential employer, ISIS promises it will let you kill someone. If the UK’s authorities are to have any chance at countering the appeal of ISIS, they will have to start acknowledging aspects of human nature and the male psyche that British society prefers to keep tidied away.
Jonathan Foreman is Senior Research Fellow at the Civitas think tank.
BOTH David Cameron and George Osborne have stated at various times that the defence of the realm is the first duty of any government.
Despite this and despite the PM’s urging fellow Nato leaders to spend the required minimum of two per cent GDP on defence, the Government has announced that the UK’s fast-shrinking and demoralised Armed Forces are to be subject to even more devastating cuts.
This is in the face of pleas from our closest allies including President Obama.
And it is despite the fact the UK is apparently rich enough to spend more on foreign aid than any other Western European country.
Indeed the Government is giving even more money to the “ring-fenced” Department For International Development (DFID), an institution notorious for mismanagement and its inability to handle its increased budget.
The PM apparently believes that increased foreign aid can more than compensate for his cuts to the Armed Forces and the Foreign Office.
He has said several times that foreign aid is the key to addressing the root causes of terrorism, mass migration and instability.
It’s a ludicrous claim.
No one with any knowledge of the major conflicts blighting the globe believes that more development aid could have prevented them or could fix them.
The brutal chaos of oil-rich Libya, the savagery of the civil wars in Syria and Sudan, the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamist violence in Nigeria and Mali and the terrifying war lords of the Congo – these are surely matters for foreign policy not foreign aid, however much the PM may disdain the former and revere the latter.
Given these spreading, worsening conflicts it seems equally obvious that it was a mistake to cut the Foreign Office budget by a third and to make such deep cuts to the Armed Forces that they will soon be unable to mount the kind of humanitarian interventions that saved so many in places such as Sierra Leone and East Timor.
The only people, besides David Cameron and his team, who maintain with a straight face that more aid will magically fix terrorism, illegal immigration and the spread of extremist violence are those who have a direct interest in a bigger aid budget. After all it is extremely difficult to deliver aid that actually makes a difference.
The worse governed, the more impoverished and chaotic a country is, the less likely it is that foreign aid will get to the people it’s supposed to help or do any good at all.
Giving more and more money does not translate into doing more and more good or helping more and more people.
For there is a huge difference, one that development ministers and charity bosses like to pretend doesn’t exist, between allocating money to fix a problem and actually fixing it.
Historically aid has not prevented any wars or mass migrations, quite the opposite. And it is far from clear that increasing the amount we or other countries spend on aid (and we already spend a lot: more than a $1trillion has gone into development aid in Africa since the 1950s) would change that.
Certainly if you look at the countries that have received the most aid per capita – Somalia, Haiti, Nepal and the Palestinian territories, the evidence is hardly encouraging.
Indeed all of them became more chaotic, violent and impoverished after becoming major aid recipients.
It is not surprising because in unstable and poor countries aid is a bit like oil or mineral resources: something to fight over.
A dark truth is that all too often foreign aid has kept conflicts going and made wars worse.
In places such as Ethiopia and Sudan rebel groups that would have been forced to surrender survived thanks to the “taxes” they levied on aid agencies and the food aid they requisitioned for their armies. Again and again aid has enabled governments to avoid coming to the bargaining table.
The result has been massive human suffering such as that which is driving millions of people from violence-plagued parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Of course humanitarian or emergency aid is undeniably vital in many places.
But it is a much more morally and politically ambiguous thing than most people realise.
Even when refugee camps don’t get taken over by militias and become bases for raiding and terrorism, as they have throughout Africa and the Middle East, the presence of the foreign aid circus can wreck local economies.
Even in countries that aren’t in conflict, foreign aid can undermine stability by encouraging corruption and by subsidising political leaders to go their own irresponsible way.
So it is simply not true, as a DFID spokesperson claimed last week, that: “Investing 0.7 per cent of our national income in overseas development in 2015 and beyond is creating a safer, healthier and more prosperous world.”
Nor is it true that foreign aid can somehow make up for the Government’s lack of attention to foreign policy and its cuts in the Foreign Office and BBC World Service.
And the idea that foreign aid will somehow protect British interests and maintain our security after cuts have crippled the Armed Forces is foolish almost beyond belief.
On foreign policy and defense, David Cameron’s UK is behaving like a second Belgium.
It’s the sort of charge that you might expect to hear from a Tory backbencher on the Right. But the Labour leader was actually echoing warnings from centrist establishment sources like the Financial Times, which ran an editorial in February worrying about “Britain’s drift to the foreign sidelines” pointing out that “as global challenges mount, the UK is increasingly absent.”
The Economist, equally Europhile and internationalist, was even tougher on the Coalition. In a scathing leader titled “Meet Little Britain, a shrinking actor on the global stage” it said that a cautious post-Tony Blair foreign policy would be understandable but that David Cameron has been “not so much cautious as apathetic, ineffective and fickle.”
Witness a paradox. Even as the British economy has strengthened, and even though London is more than ever a global hub, and even though the UK has access to reserves of human capital unequalled in Europe, British power and influence has gone into steep decline since Cameron first became prime minister.
That decline was not an issue during the election campaign. The only foreign policy matter the Tories were keen to talk about was a referendum on membership of the EU — prompted by the need to counter UKIP.
But the decline has been been noted by the UK’s friends and enemies around the globe. And there was embarrassing proof of it only 48 hours before Britons went to the polls, when the US Navy began escorting British commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.
Britain had discreetly asked for ships to be chaperoned after Iran seized a cargo ship flagged to the Marshall Islands on April 28. The request was an admission that the Royal Navy has shrunk to such a size that it can no longer protect British shipping in the strategic waterways that were, until recently, a British zone of influence. This zone includes: Yemen, to whose collapse the UK has had no response. Britons had to be evacuated from Aden by Indian and Chinese vessels.
Although these manifestations of British weakness and the Cameron government’s seeming indifference to Britain’s influence escaped notice in the UK , previous ones did not.
David Cameron saw no reason to get involved with the emergency talks about Ukraine that saw Angela Merkel and François Hollande rush to Moscow. This was despite the fact that Britain was one of the three guarantors of Ukrainian security (in return for that country giving up its nuclear arsenal) under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Any hopes that Cameron’s refusal to get involved in Ukraine might soothe British relations with the Putin regime were quickly scotched as the UK became the subject of increasingly aggressive probes by Russian bombers and warships. Cameron’s apparent unconcern about Ukraine prompted the recently retired top British commander in NATO, General Sir Richard Shirreff, to complain that the Prime Minister is a “bit player…nobody takes any notice of” and that Britain is becoming “a foreign policy irrelevance.”
Shirreff might also have pointed to Cameron’s notable absence from the international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program. Or the fact that despite Cameron’s typically impressive rhetoric about the “generational threat” from Islamist radicalism (a phrase he used in support of the robust French intervention in Mali) the UK has done considerably less than other Western states to combat it.
The UK’s contribution to the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has been in the words of the Commons Defense Select Committee “strikingly modest.”
Much smaller countries like Denmark have contributed more troops to train and advise Iraqi Kurdish forces, and the Netherlands has deployed more fighter jets. The UK is limited in its ability to carry out airstrikes by the shrinkage of the RAF to only 6 fast jet squadrons, down from 11 during the first Gulf War. Outside the Kurdish region of Iraq, the UK has only three personnel training and advising Iraqi forces; Australia, Spain and Italy have sent 400, 300 and 280 troops, respectively.
No account of Cameron’s retreat from the world would be complete without reference to the scuttle from Afghanistan while claiming a mission accomplished.
British allies in ISAF were dismayed by the UK’s decision not to play a role in the successor to ISAF — Operation Resolute Support. In the UK’s absence, the lead in that 12,000-man effort is being taken by Germany, Italy, Turkey and the US.
The Cameron government decided to limit future military assistance to a small team working at the Afghan National Army Officers Academy, nicknamed the ‘Sandhurst in the Sand”. Rumors from inside the MOD say that the Cameron government is planning to renege even on that minimal commitment.
Allied disappointment in Afghanistan was dwarfed by the sense of betrayal among the thousands of Afghans who have worked with British during the last decade; the latter were understandably baffled by British assertions that the war in Afghanistan is “over.”
Vanishing Soft Power
There was a point early in his first term when Cameron sounded as if he were inclined to follow an assertive foreign policy. Although he had at first treated foreign affairs as primarily the promotion of British commerce, the Arab Spring caught his imagination. By early 2013, Cameron had become an early advocate of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya and enthusiastically supported the French campaign in Mali. There was even some excited talk of a “Cameron Doctrine.”
But things changed rapidly after Cameron lost a Commons vote in August 2013 that would have authorized limited intervention in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Stung by the defeat, the Prime Minister seemed to turn against foreign affairs in general. Even after a British aid worker was decapitated by a (British) ISIS executioner, he was reluctant to join in any international intervention against the organization.
Any doubt about the low priority of foreign affairs after the Syria debacle should have been dispelled soon after the sudden resignation of William Hague as foreign secretary in July last year. Cameron proceeded to hand the office once held by Canning and Castlereagh to a party apparatchik named Philip Hammond, who had not previously shown any particular aptitude for (or interest in) foreign policy, and whose previous tenure at the Ministry of Defense was unimpressive even by the low standards of Tory defense secretaries.
But there is an argument that Cameron and his team were never really interested in foreign affairs in a traditional sense. Why else would they have been so sanguine about imposing severe cuts on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) soon after taking office?
The “Cameroons” cut the FCO’s annual budget by almost a third from an already inadequate £2.4 billion in 2010 to £1.7 billion in 2014. As the FT pointed out, the sum is less than the UK spends subsidizing the heating of pensioners.
Embassies and consulates have closed and diplomatic missions have shrunk. This means that the UK will have less intelligence on which to base foreign and security policy, and that the UK’s “soft power” — much boasted of by Cameron at the beginning of the last government — will diminish.
The Cameron government’s failure to give the FCO adequate resources has been particularly damaging for British interests in Latin America. Relations with Chile and Brazil, key allies during the Falklands War, have been neglected despite Argentina’s aggressive rhetoric about the Falklands and the likelihood that Russia may soon sell Buenos Aires game-changing warplanes.
The cuts to the FCO budget, like the even more damaging defense cuts (about which more later), cannot simply be explained by economic necessity.
After all, the Cameron government simultaneously increased spending on the already much bigger Department for International Development (DfID) by more than £2.5 billion pounds per annum. (This year the DfID budget will actually hit £12 billion in total, in accordance with the goal of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on aid).
Ring-fenced from austerity measures to which all but two other government departments have been subject, the Foreign Aid behemoth is now so lavishly funded its staff have had difficulty making good use of its wealth.
Cameron justified giving additional billions to DfID with the claim that foreign aid can prevent war, terrorism and mass migration (he has never distinguished between development aid and humanitarian/emergency aid and may not even be aware of the difference).
However, successive reports have found that DfID’s spending is inefficient and often fails to accomplish much good in the countries where it works.
It is not clear if Cameron truly believes that foreign aid has a magical ability to bring about global stability, or if it’s merely the only form of foreign engagement that he feels comfortable dealing with.
But if he and his circle were truly as interested in the projection of British Soft Power as they have been in softening the Tory brand, you would expect them not to put all their eggs in the Aid basket and to have boosted expenditure on the Foreign Office and the British Council, and above all on the BBC’s World Service.
The latter has long been the most important source of British soft power. But during the last five years its influence has diminished, thanks to swingeing budget cuts. In 2011 for example, World Service radio stopped broadcasting to Asia in Mandarin Chinese. It had been doing so for 70 years and its news reports played an important role during the 1989 Democracy protests.
If that weren’t bad enough, in 2014 the government also switched the source of the World Service’s funding from the Foreign Office budget to that of the main BBC, where it is an orphan vulnerable to that Corporation’s internal politics (and, therefore, further cuts).
It’s almost as if the Cameron government were unaware of the regard in which the World Services’ broadcasts are held in many parts of the world, that it reaches at least 170 million people a week even after the cuts, and is unconcerned that countries like China, Russia, Qatar and Iran are all heavily investing in international broadcast networks explicitly inspired by the World Service.
Vanishing ‘Hard’ Power
British hard power has also been devastated since 2010 by deep, ill-considered cuts in a defense budget that was already too small for a country with the UK’s commitments, standing and global interests.
Britain’s NATO allies were horrified by the debacle of the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review. Its arbitrary 8 percent cut in the overall defense budget resulted in what was arguably a 30 percent cut in capacity across all three services. Its recommendations were clearly determined by Treasury priorities rather than any informed consideration of the country’s current and future needs. Even the liberal Guardian’s defense correspondent called it “an embarrassing and unseemly shambles.”
Few foreign observers could understand the logic behind the rush with which the country’s only aircraft carrier was scrapped and all the Royal Navy’s and RAF’s Harrier jets were sold off at fire-sale prices to a bemused but grateful US Marine Corps.
Critics pointed out that simultaneous cuts in the Army’s troops to pre-Napoleonic levels might be appropriate if all international signs pointed to a new global era of peace and harmony. But they made rather less sense given the upheavals in the Middle East, the increasing belligerence of Russia and the many indications that the world is becoming more a dangerous place.
US officials have publicly expressed worry about the British defense cuts and the likelihood that the UK is ceasing to be a “full spectrum” ally able to deploy a division-sized force alongside American troops in a future conflict. They included Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, Chief of Army Staff Ray Odierno and President Obama himself. You might have expected Cameron to be embarrassed by the latter’s admonishment, but the American warnings seemed to have had little effect on government direction. Only a month before the general election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated that UK defense spending will likely drop below 2 percent of GDP. The latter is not only required by NATO membership, it’s the amount that experts consider to be the absolute bare minimum for the “special relationship” to continue.
Already, the US military, despite its affection for and ties to the UK’s armed forces, increasingly sees France as its primary partner abroad. Paris has more influence in Washington than at any time since the 1950s, despite the French economy. It is also reaping the other benefits of being perceived as Europe’s leading military power — including the sale of Rafale jets to Qatar, India and Egypt. Having recently opened a Naval base in Abu Dhabi, France can protect its cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
‘Not Good At Foreigners’
There are cultural and personal explanations for Cameron’s retreat from the world.
While it may not be true that his marketing gurus perceive the military as irredeemably “uncool” and spending on it as unhelpful for the Conservative Party’s “detoxification” agenda, it is easy to get the impression that George Osborne and some of his colleagues believe the country’s armed forces are a rather silly indulgence in the modern world.
“There are no votes in defense” (a quote attributed to Philip Hammond during the campaign) and also no votes to be won on foreign policy. That is not a perception limited to the Tories, but something everyone in Britain’s political class now believes.
Of course, you hope that even the most cynical politicians will, at a certain point, look beyond their self-interest and balance what wins votes with what seems best for the national interest. As Iain Martin pointed out, it’s impossible to imagine Margaret Thatcher thinking that “There are no votes in defense.”
Another factor may be what the British media calls the Cameroons’ “essay-crisis” approach to government. This is a reference to the habit of many Oxbridge undergraduates to postpone engaging with important assignments until the night before they’re due. Insider accounts from inside Downing Street confirm that Cameron’s way is to deal with political challenges at the last possible minute. Because Cameron is clever and lucky, it’s an approach that often works. But good foreign policy tends to require medium to long-term planning, calm consideration, and timely advice from a range of experts.
Another explanation for the retreat may be that Cameron recognizes that he is just “not good at foreigners” in the sense that his unquestionable political and people skills do not travel well. Unlike Tony Blair, he has not forged strong bonds with any important foreign leader. Moreover his failed attempt to stop the selection of the Anglophobic Luxembourger Jean-Claude Junker as European Commission President bodes ill for his promised renegotiation of the UK’s place in Europe.
The UK’s withering global influence may further decrease British leverage within the EU, making it less likely that Cameron will win concessions that has promised the public. That in turn increases the possibility that the UK electorate may vote to the leave the EU in the referendum Cameron promised largely in order to neutralize the threat from UKIP.
Will Things Change?
After five years of Coalition rule the UK is now punching well below its weight. In spite of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a nuclear deterrent, the second largest population in Europe, the fifth largest economy in the world and globe-spanning commercial, cultural, institutional, military and political interests, Britain is behaving like a second Belgium.
It may be that the man who is most responsible for this will now seek to turn the situation round. After all, now that he has a solid majority and his ongoing premiership is assured, Cameron no longer has to worry about LibDem sensibilities, tomorrow’s opinion polls or the state of the Tory “brand”. He has the opportunity to be a global statesman as well as a successful domestic politician, and it is possible that he may be guided in that direction by one of the ablest members of his cabinet, Justice Minister Michael Gove, who has a deep, long-abiding interest in foreign affairs, and who really should have been William Hague’s successor at the Foreign Office.
Unfortunately the portents for change are so far not good. Philip Hammond was reappointed to head the Foreign Office, and Defense Minister Michael Fallon (who provided one of the few laughs of the campaign by accusing Labour of being weak on defense) has also kept his post.
In the past the ability to wield both hard and soft power has enabled Britain to achieve good things in the world, to stand up for human rights and the rule of law, as well to as protect her own citizens and interests. If Britain continues to hemorrhage both its European and American alliances, it won’t be able to do these things, and David Cameron’s legacy will be an isolated, enfeebled, much-diminished country.
BlogComments Off on Strange Days – On the UK election
It’s refreshing to experience a general election in which the polls and the pundits are proved massively wrong.
It’s especially invigorating when the stakes are as high as they were on thursday. After all, a different result could have had huge domestic and international ramifications in fairly short order, beginning with a collapse of the pound and perhaps culminating, in theory, in the UK’s nuclear disarmament and departure from the UN Security Council.
But the unexpectedness of the final result also makes you wonder how disconnected from the electorate the political and media classes really are. The whole computer-assisted modern apparatus of marketing, polling and focus grouping seems not to work as well as advertised when the country is in the midst of a tectonic political shift.
Among other things, the election proved that the celebrated “detoxification” of the Tory brand was not, in fact all that successful. But it indicated at the same time that that Tory “toxicity” may not really matter, at least in the current economic and political climate. After all, tens of thousands of people apparently lied to pollsters and journalists about their intention to vote conservative, and then went ahead and ticked the Tory box…
That said, one great danger for the new government is that Cameron may believe that the resulting Tory victory was attributable to his own qualities and actions rather then the unattractiveness of the Labour alternative combined with the surge of Scottish nationalism.
It seems likely that millions of people in England and Wales were simply unwilling to gamble Britain’s relative prosperity and low unemployment on a return to the old-fashioned socialism believed in by Ed Miliband. Others weren’t willing to gamble on a socialist project if it was to be led by such a smug and untrustworthy-seeming young man.
In the old industrial cities of England, a significant number of traditional working class Labour voters who might have supported Miliband’s economic policies were probably alienated by the way the Labour leader personified the domination of the party by upper-middle-class metropolitans like himself.
The fact that Miliband’s personal toxicity was not fully reflected in the polls or journalistic coverage suggests that both operated with some kind of pre-existing bias in favour of the Labour party.
In Scotland, the problem with Labour was different: a population steeped in 1970s-style socialism was no longer willing to vote for a local Labour party that had become offensively complacent, lazy and corrupt after years of unchallenged dominance.
Indeed one of the underlying themes of the 2015 election, and one that Cameron and other party leaders will ignore at their peril, is the deepening alienation of many working class voters from both the “London-centric” political and media elite, and from established party machines in the big cities
It is an alienation that simultaneously manifests itself in UKIP votes in England – more than three million of them, and in 1.5 million SNP votes in Scotland, 50% of the total cast there. It’s easier to overlook the former than the latter because of the weird distorting effect of Britain’s “First Past the Post” system as currently constituted: with the SNP getting 58 seats for 1.5 million votes, and UKIP getting one seat for almost 4 million votes.
The fact that UKIP won fewer seats than expected and that its leader Nigel Farage failed to get in and had to resign, should not distract observers from the fact that UKIP proved itself to be a truly national party, gaining significant votes all over England and Wales, and often coming in third or even second place. There’s also little question that many UKIPers, especially in the South, voted tactically, their desire to keep out a Labour-led coalition overcoming their disillusion with or dislike of David Cameron’s Tories.
It now seems possible that Labour could go into catastrophic decline in much the same way that the Liberal Party did in the years after World War I, despite having played a dominant role in British politics for more than half a century. Certainly the results from London suggest that Labour may become more and more reliant on the votes of immigrant communities and racial minorities.
At the same time, if UKIP survives Farage’s resignation or if another alternative party should emerge that can appeal to white working class voters who are tribally allergic to the Tories, then Labour’s vote may well shrink much further in the midlands and industrial North.
As for the LibDems, their extraordinary rout felt like karmic punishment for their hypocritical and dishonest refusal to support customary redistricting of electoral boundaries while in the Coalition with the Tories. The actual mechanism of their defeat though, seems to have been partly a matter of tactical voting by a British public that had a taste of coalition government and doesn’t like it. But it may also have had a lot to do with the disillusionment of those voters who foolishly believed before the formation of the Coalition that the LibDems were principled outsiders, unsullied by and immune to the compromise and corruption that comes with political office.
Some of the lessons offered by the election are contradictory. In large parts of the Kingdom, many voters seem to have made a cool calculation that their material interests would be served by the continuation of relatively responsible, cautious and competent economic management, an option which was offered by only one main party. But elsewhere, and especially in Scotland, large numbers of people were motivated by intense political emotion and by concerns about identity and national pride. All of the latter were noticeably absent from the campaigns by the Westminster leaders. But then none of the three are as obviously talented and appealing as the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.
But the big reveals are yet to come. For instance, will a David Cameron unrestrained by coalition partners behave differently now that he has an actual majority? Critics within the Tory party have long worried that he lacks a vision for the country, that the only thing he believes in is own suitability for the top job. Arguably he has never had to demonstrate political courage by leading public opinion or standing up for a potentially unpopular person or policy, all of which may be necessary if he is steer a country rattled by a massive electoral shifts.
It is possible that Cameron will decide that the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems vindicates his “essay crisis” style of leadership, his faith in “branding”, his lack of interest in foreign affairs, his downgrading of the armed forces, and his insistence on a lavish foreign aid budget at a time of austerity elsewhere.
But now that there are no LibDems to blame for broken promises, humiliating compromises or the shambolic execution of government policy, Cameron will find himself under much more pressure from Conservative MPs whom he prefers to be quietly deferential and whose opinions he has shown little respect for.
At the same time he will have to confront a new SNP bloc that is considerably further to the left than the Labour party, and which because of its youth, inexperience and Anglophobia, (not to mention its desire to break up the Union, not necessarily shared by all SNP voters) may turn out to be a disruptive force in Parliament.
More important, Cameron and his team are going to have deal with national challenges that make questions of NHS funding and mansion taxes seem insignificant. Not least the constitutional reforms that may be needed to keep the country together. But there are also other important issues that went all but unmentioned by everyone during the campaign: foreign alliances, immigration, defence, freedom of speech, foreign aid, the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, social cohesion, and the special relationship with the United States, all of which demand a vision of the country the UK is going to be and the role it will play in the world.